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Originally published October 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 14, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Hot salsa cool congas

Puerto Rico, before the sun rises, circa 1965. Papi, after being out all night with the guys (and drinking whiskey), arrives home and wakes...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Exhibition preview

"American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music," 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through Sept. 7, 2008, Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum, 325 Fifth Ave. N., Seattle; $12-$15 (206-770-2700 or www.empsfm.org).

Puerto Rico, before the sun rises, circa 1965. Papi, after being out all night with the guys (and drinking whiskey), arrives home and wakes up his young girls: Come, come listen to this, he'd implore.

And daughters Angie and Marisol, knowing all too well that he'd never give up until they indeed came and listened, would trail him into the living room where el tocadiscos played the records of Los Panchos or Cuarteto Marcano. La musica romantica. Boleros. Guarachas.

"We were soaked in music," recalls Marisol Berríos-Miranda, now grown and teaching and living in Seattle. "We listened to everything." Mexican rancheras. Dominican merengues. Mambo. Cha cha chá.

The family's Friday ritual — the women cooking, the men playing dominoes — also included the record player turned up full blast.

"I studied music academically, but the way I learned music — who sings well, what had a good rhythm — was sitting down and listening with my dad."

Now Berríos-Miranda, an ethnomusicologist, is inviting anyone who doesn't know a son from a salsa to the groundbreaking "American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music" exhibit at Seattle's Experience Music Project.

An exhibit of strength

Part historical narrative, part musical-instrument instruction and packed with sound throughout, the bilingual exhibit focuses on five centers of Latino popular music: New York City, Los Angeles, San Antonio, San Francisco and Miami.

It's a first-of-its-kind exhibit in terms of size and scope, taking a look at the many genres of music and the many artists — Latino and non-Latino alike — who contributed to a unique American sound.

The Smithsonian, for example, celebrated the legendary Celia Cruz with an exhibit in 2005 that's now in San Antonio. Earlier, the institution also spotlighted the musical styles and sounds of Latin Jazz. And McDonald's is currently touring a museum-on-wheels exhibit related to the Latin Grammys.

But here now, over 5,000 square feet, stand 100 artifacts spanning 60 years that run the musical gamut from banda rap to boogaloo.

Listen and learn

In one glass case: a gown and shoes worn by The Queen of Salsa, Cruz. And in another: a Harmony electric guitar and Mexican-style vest belonging to rock 'n' roller Ritchie Valens of "La Bamba" and "Donna" fame.

There's a Linda Ronstadt purple mariachi suit (the pop vocalist, who is of Mexican ancestry, recorded an album of Mexican folk songs in 1987.) A trombone played by salsero Willie Colón (from the Bronx). Congas belonging to Michael Carabello of San Francisco's Santana, which fused the blues, rock, jazz and Latin sounds. And a gold lamé outfit worn by the one-and-only punk-influenced El Vez, "the Mexican Elvis," now of Seattle.

Kiosks feature oral histories with 45 musicians, including Tejano musician Juan Barco, formerly of the Yakima Valley but currently living in Snohomish County.

And in keeping in line with the museum's Experience Music name, there are two types of interactive booths: a kind of Simon-says one that teaches visitors how to play a specific musical hook on a keyboard. (The "Para bailar la bamba" one, for example.) And one where you can isolate different instruments in a song. Hear the congas in Jorge Santana's "Song for Cesar." Now, hear los timbales.

With a guided audio tour and additional listening kiosks focused on specific musical genres, it's impossible to walk out of the exhibit without having gleaned some fascinating tidbit: Cannibal and the Headhunters — those guys who sang "Land of 1000 Dances" ("I said Naa, NaNaNaNaa") were Mexican Americans from East L.A.

The Latin influence

"I think I've probably learned more from doing this exhibit than any other," says the museum's Jasen Emmons, who curated "American Sabor" with Berríos-Miranda and two University of Washington associate professors, Shannon Dudley and Michelle Habell-Pallán.

"I've grown up hearing some of these songs, but I didn't know much about them. And I didn't realize how Latin music introduced all these different instrumentations."

Take "Oye Como Va," for example, a song almost everyone associates with Santana. Tito Puente actually debuted the song in 1962. And that electric guitar so familiar in the Santana version was originally a flute.

Another exhibit fact: "Break On Through" by the Doors was influenced by the Afro-Cuban mambo.

And another: If you listen closely to the Rolling Stones' "Get Off of My Cloud," or Shania Twain's "That Don't Impress Me Much," you'll hear the influence of the Cuban cha cha chá.

"Part of the exhibit is to take a song and show it to people in a new way," explains Berríos-Miranda. To break down a song and show its origins. But to also show the mélange of certain beats and instruments that have formed a quintessentially U.S. sound.

A fair representation

As for the artists who are showcased, the curators wanted both known and lesser-known names. Los Lobos and Jennifer Lopez are here. But don't look for Marc Anthony. Nor Ricky Martin.

Instead, attention goes to someone like Pérez Prado, who introduced the mambo to Middle America in the 1950s. And to punk impresario Alice Bag of Los Angeles.

"We often think of punk as this white-boy thing," says co-curator Habell-Pallán. "But people don't realize that one of the first daughters was Mexican-American Alice Armendariz Bag."

"American Sabor" is the first collaboration between EMP and the UW. It's taken three years to organize, but the curators admit they may have had a geographical advantage in launching this: A small Pacific Northwest Latino population — as opposed to, say, Miami — meant no lobbying for one musical genre or one particular Latino group to take center stage.

"In some ways, this is neutral ground," says co-curator Dudley. "We can be comprehensive without being beholden to any one musical scene."

Move at the museum

Sabor (sah-BOR), by the way, means "flavor" or "taste" in Spanish, and it's one of those words that will get yelled out as an acclamation during a performance. (Santana-philes will also tell you it's the very first word sung in their "Oye Como Va").

"American Sabor" is the best kind of museum exhibit: intoxicating and inviting for both music expert and novice alike. And no detail here, in this exhibit that will eventually tour the country, went overlooked. That red frilly curtain hanging in the New York section: It's meant to evoke the sleeves of a traditional Cuban dress. The curvy wall designs seen throughout: the embroidery from a guayabera shirt.

Music afficionados — melómanos — will also appreciate one other feature here: a dance floor with a large screen showing various clips. Because Berríos-Miranda, taught early on that Latino music is always paired with dancing, wouldn't have had it any other way.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or fdavila@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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